It's the tradition!
[Because somebody kindly asked and today I'm in a good writing mood, here's the Matteo-English version of my arrest in Syria]
On a rainy day, wrestling my umbrella against the raging wind and wiping my lens clean every thirty seconds, I found myself in a grim neighbourhood of rusting cars and abandoned buildings. I take the picture of a shell of an Oldsmobile and then I take the one that will get me arrested.
Veeery nice, isn't it? Mh. I think I may end up winning the Pulitzer prize for such an astonishing picture.
I don't walk more than two steps after this shot, that I'm suddenly surrounded by at least ten men in a camouflaged uniform: they shout at me, their faces decomposed by a sudden anger, they snatch the camera from my neck (don't-let-it-fall-don't-let-it-fall-don't-let-it-fall becomes my silent mantra) and they show me, unreadable from where I was previously, a hand written misspelled sign that forbids any kind of camera in the vicinity. They push me in a small office near a guarded entrance.
They open their hands in front of my eyes and they pass the index across the palm: what do you want to do to me? Cut my hands? I later on understand that they are asking for my passport. The wall behind the car I photographed belongs to a military complex and although I show them there is nothing to be afraid of from my picture (I wasn't on a recognition mission to plan an attack against some Syrian outpost) the relentless military machine is in motion and it is now unstoppable: they make me seat on a hard bed, they ask me countless questions and they start speaking excitedly with somebody at the end of the line, probably a superior: “we've caught a spy! We've got it! He was trying to undermine the stability of the mighty Syrian state but we stopped him right on time!”.
Outside the rain just subsided.
After this first muscle show they bring me a tea and a glass of water; they swing between the utmost kindness and extreme seriousness, they keep asking a thousand questions and, for once, I realise it is not time for joking (well, at least not too much). Name? Surname? Father's name? Mother's name? Nationality? City? I answer and volunteer some extra information (hello Holly Boy) like the name of my dog and my favourite movie, they laugh at least but they are not that interested in those aspects of my life.
– No passport.
– Hotel name?
I really don't remember the hotel's name. I try but the only thing I can mumble in some sort of made up Arabic only produces very puzzled faces all around me. No passport, no hotel's name. I haven't really learnt anything from the last time they arrested me in Iran but at least over there, after a pleasant hour talking with the police, they let me go with these parting words “your beard is your passport for Iran, you can go”. Here my beard doesn't seem to impress them very much and here I stay.
I show them once again the pictures I took, they understand quite well that there is nothing to be afraid of (I'm not that dangerous criminal they were almost wishing for to take them out of their boring routine made of nothing) but they must follow the procedure, whatever that is. They continue with their travesty of shouted telephone calls, probably asking what to do with me, and new officials, each with their own way of butchering English, start anew with the same questions over and over. They keep telling me that I should not be afraid, they hold me there but they smile, they insist that it is just “the tradition” (and not “the procedure”). Nice tradition. Welcome to Syria, they add the end of every series of questions. I have to say I've seen better greetings in my life.
After two hours talking with the soldiers a tall man in a blue coat, with a serious moustache, comes in; he's escorted by two men wearing bulletproof vests and carrying nasty machine guns across their chests. Ops. Maybe I am in deep shit.
He sits behind a big wooden desk in the small room.
He asks everybody to leave.
The men with the guns by the two side of the entrance (maybe some elite unit from the Italian army will come to my rescue).
He prepares a Turkish coffee for himself and one for me.
He piles up a few pieces of immaculate paper and he starts again with the same questions adding others his rank is suggesting him.
The tall man would like to reassure me not to worry: “this is the tradition” after all.
After a good deal of trials through his i-phone he manages to identify my hotel, eventually: Kewkab Al Salam, the Peace Star. How could have I forgotten it? I thought he'll just call the hotel to confirm my identity (and I'm quite happy at this stage that I didn't say my name was Arturo Bandini or something) and that we will live happily ever after. But no. After the call he continues with the questions (“what do you think about Syrians?”, “well… I've been here for two days… and this is actually my first impression… so… let me think…”) and then he provides some extra tourist information about Syria. I figure out he actually sent one of his sidekicks to fetch my passport at the no-star no-frills Kewkab Al Salam. Another waste of time. After another good hour, an excited man arrives fanning himself with my passport. The man in the blue coat examines every page of it and he finally decides I'm not a fearful spy.
During the entire probing not a single raindrop has fallen.
As soon as I step out it starts to rain again.
My beard hasn't saved me this time, maybe it's time to get rid of it.